CROTHERSVILLE – Now that the movie script has come to life, Crothersville athletic director Greg Kilgore is ready to move on to casting.
“I’m thinking Leo DiCaprio playing the role of Kevin (Hensley, the girls basketball coach) and Brad Pitt as the athletic director,” Kilgore said. “How’s that sound?”
If anything seems possible in this Jackson County community of 1,600 in Southern Indiana, there’s good reason. On Saturday night, for the first time since Crothersville became a member of the Indiana High School Athletic Association in 1914, the school took home a sectional championship trophy.
It was the girls basketball team that finally – finally!!! – accomplished the feat, defeating West Washington 72-69 for the Class A Sectional 61 championship at Orleans. But this was for everybody. From the 78-year-old former coach and administrator in the bleachers to the one-time guard who led the Tigers within a game of a sectional title nearly 40 years ago to the 20-point-per-game scorer who wanted to be a dancer, not a basketball player.
The screams and shouts and tears and smiles when the clock hit zero Saturday night were for all of Crothersville.
“Every time I watch the video, it brings tears to my eyes,” said senior Katrina Christian. “I can be at Subway or the restaurant on the corner and somebody will come up and say, ‘Wow, you guys are sectional champs.’ Basketball is the heart of Crothersville. Basketball brings this community together. We did it for them.”
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It seems almost impossible that a school – even a small school like Crothersville – wouldn’t have won a sectional championship somewhere along the way, in some sport. For many years, in the single-class basketball era, the Tigers played in the Seymour sectional in boys basketball. From 1923 to 1977, Seymour won the sectional 41 times.
There were close calls. Oh so many close calls. In 1936, Crothersville lost the sectional championship to Brownstown 25-24. The 1980 team knocked off Austin and Scottsburg, then rallied in the sectional championship game before losing 74-69 to Jennings County. The Tigers played for a sectional title three of the next four years in the early ‘80s, losing them all by nine points or fewer.
In 1997-98, the start of class sports opened the door for many small-school programs to win a sectional. But it never happened for Crothersville, a 134-student enrollment high school which offers boys and girls basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, cross country, track and golf.
“When they went to class basketball, the thought was, ‘Well, Crothersville will get one now,’” Kilgore said. “Well, it had been 20 years and we still hadn’t done it. You would have thought we’d have fell into one by now.”
The time finally arrived this season. But the Tigers didn’t exactly fall into it.
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It seems fitting that Fran Schill has a direct lineage to Crothersville’s first championship team. Schill graduated from Crothersville in 1956 and played on a team that won 18 games. Schill returned to his hometown in 1974 and worked the next four decades as a teacher, coach and administrator.
Schill led the girls team from 1980 to ’87. He coached Sarah Turner, who set school records in single-game scoring (38 points), single-game rebounds (23) and career scoring (1,152 points). But Turner wasn’t able to lead Crothersville to the elusive sectional title.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see it,” Schill said. “I’ll be 79 this month and didn’t think it would ever happen.”
Schill was there Saturday night, in tears, as the buzzer sounded. But he was more than just a spectator. Christian, a 5-7 standout who is headed to Eastern Illinois, is his great-granddaughter. The two have shared many conversations about basketball around the kitchen table.
“He’s been around the game longer than I’ve been alive,” Christian said. “We have a great relationship. Whatever he teaches me and tells me to do, I’ll put that into my game. One thing he told me that really sticks with me is that it doesn’t matter how many points you score, but not to let the person I’m guarding score more than I do.”
It seems crazy now that Christian has shattered nearly every school record (she has 1,634 career points), but it took some prodding to even get her to come out for basketball. Up through sixth grade, Christian was involved in competitive dancing and had little interest in basketball.
Hensley, a 1980 Crothersville graduate, took over as the girls varsity coach in 2009. It was around that time that he approached Christian about playing basketball.
“I said, ‘Kristina you’re so athletic you don’t want to pass up this opportunity,’” Hensley said. “Her first year playing, she noticed she could do things other kids couldn’t. It’s just blossomed from there.”
Christian is having her best season this year, averaging 21.8 points and 10.7 rebounds. In the sectional championship win over West Washington, she had 32 points and 12 rebounds.
“I fell in love with basketball,” she said.
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Hensley’s first team in 2009-10 finished 15-8, but the core group graduated that year. With little experience at the varsity level, the Tigers won just five games over the next three years.
At a school with less patience, Hensley might have feared for his job. But he’d been coaching at the younger levels of the program prior to taking over and knew help was on the way.
“We took some punishment for a while,” said Hensley, who works for Crothersville Heating & Air as his day job. “But once we got this group coming in, we started to go uphill. Now we can hold our own.”
After a 6-13 season in 2013-14, the Tigers were 14-11 and 12-11, respectively, the past two seasons. But the program hadn’t won a sectional game since 2009 until edging Trinity Lutheran 49-47 in overtime in the first round of the sectional last week.
That win seemed to relieve the pressure a bit.
“We know a sectional championship is like a state title here,” senior Kashmir Kelshaw said. “We always wanted to be a part of that.”
Wins over Orleans and West Washington clinched it. The team returned to Crothersville on the school bus Saturday night to a gym filled with emotional community members. Not even the girls, in their wildest dreams, could have imagined how much it really meant until they saw it with their own eyes.
“It’s almost like you join a club of the greatest,” said senior Madison Reynolds. “It’s like you’re immortalized. I came into school Monday and saw the trophy and thought, ‘Are we supposed to take that somewhere?’ No wait, that’s ours!”
The trophy. There’s not another one like it in the school. It’s sitting on a trophy case in the hallway outside the gym with the championship net draped around it. Christian’s grandmother and Schill’s daughter, Linda Luedeman, played on the first Crothersville girls team in 1975-76.
“Everybody feels ownership in this,” she said. “They are our Cinderella team.”
Crothersville (19-8) will play No. 1 Wood Memorial (24-1) in a regional semifinal on Saturday at Springs Valley. “Anything beyond this point is gravy,” Christian said. “I think this is the icing on the cake.”
Call IndyStar reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.